Train derailments, chemical spills: Here’s what we learned investigating these hazards for nearly a decade

Crude oil explosions spark calls for better rail cars, regulation.

Story UPDATED: February 25, 2023

The Dayton Daily News has been covering the dangers posed by train derailments and other transportation accidents for nearly a decade.

The Feb. 3, 2023 East Palestine, Ohio derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway Company train and subsequent fire and release of toxic materials has renewed calls for more regulations of these trains and transportation of hazardous materials.

Our investigation found those same issues existed in 2014, when Ohio ranked third in the nation for the number of serious transportation accidents involving hazardous materials between January 2005 and June 2014. Ohio remains third in the nation for those kinds of accidents, according to our latest investigation, published February 26, 2023.

In 2014 our investigation found concerns over the quality of rail cars and requirements for those carrying hazardous material. There were calls then for more stringent regulations, better notification to communities and emergency responders and the retirement or retrofit of flammable material tank rail cars that rupture in derailments.

By April 2017, Ohio was still third worst in the country for the number of serious transportation accidents involving hazardous materials, like the gasoline in a tanker truck that exploded into flames on April 30, 2017 on Interstate 75 in Dayton after colliding with a wrong-way driver.

The driver of the car was killed and the truck driver injured. The interstate was closed for hours as the fire burned and authorities worked to investigate the accident.

See the massive fire: Social media users catch videos and photos of the I-75 explosion aftermath

At the time of that crash, truck traffic accounted for four out of five of the serious hazmat transportation accidents nationwide, according to the United States Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

There had been 602 incidents deemed serious in Ohio since 1987. The majority — 528 — are highway accidents. And 42 of those serious highway incidents took place since July 1, 2014.


Original story from June 29, 2014

Chemical Dangers Riding the Rails

Chemical toxins such as chlorine gas, radioactive material or explosive crude oil hauled in puncture-prone train cars pass through the region virtually every day, yet authorities — including first-responders — are given little information about what deadly loads are in their midst.

Usually, these materials travel without incident, but when they do not — when an accidental spill occurs — the impact can be deadly, destructive and expensive.

Crude oil trains are derailing and leaking hazardous material in dramatically increasing numbers across the United States, rising from just a single serious incident in 2005 to 47 last year.

Gasoline leaks have killed 61 people since 2005, more than any other hazardous material transported in the U.S.

And the release of chlorine gas — used in water treatment and a variety of chemical processes — injured more people than any other hazardous material, including 554 hurt when a tank car was breached during a 2005 derailment in South Carolina.

The accidents, particularly those involving trains hauling crude oil or ethanol, have led to calls for more stringent regulations, better notification to communities and emergency responders and the retirement or retrofit of flammable material tank rail cars that rupture in derailments.

“The tank cars that they are using are widely known as tin cans on wheels,” said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based railroad safety consultant. “The (crude) business is growing so fast they don’t ever take any rail cars out of service. They are using any old clunker they can get their hands on.”

Since 2005, 117 people have been killed across the U.S. in 5,320 serious hazardous materials releases that occurred during transport via roadway, railway, air or water, according to this newspaper’s analysis of data collected by the United States Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Another 1,524 people were injured, 112,000 people were evacuated, and damages totaled $612.3 million.

Ohio ranks third highest in the country for the number of serious incidents of hazardous material releases during transport, the analysis found.

“It’s actually shocking what comes through the county every day on trains,” said Jeff Galloway, director of the Butler County Emergency Management Agency. “We have every chemical: hydrogen fluoride or chlorine or propane or methane, you name it. In 2012 there were over 23,000 rail cars of hazardous materials and products that flowed through Butler County.”

‘I mean they blow up’

Two major railroads — CSX Transportation Inc. and Norfolk Southern Corp. — and several smaller railroad lines come through the Dayton and southwest Ohio region and by law they must carry any product that shippers offer as long as regulations allow it and the material is properly packaged and placarded. The shippers typically own the rail cars.

“If you drive down Main Street you will go under a train trestle. On that railroad trestle is chlorine and ammonia, cyanide, crude oil,” said Denny Bristow, coordinator of the Dayton Regional Hazardous Materials Team. “There are so many things that come through either by rail or over the road. You can’t be prepared for all of them.”

He said petroleum crude oil trains, including long “unit” trains carrying nothing but crude, pass through Dayton on their way to East Coast refineries. Crude trains travel directly through downtown Dayton and over the region’s precious groundwater.

“The crude oil trains are definitely a hazard,” Bristow said, adding that it doesn’t take much for crude oil to ignite in a derailment.

“I mean they blow up,” he said. “They cause so much damage initially. There’s so much damage people don’t have time to evacuate. People don’t have time to run away from it. It just happens.”

Damages from accidents involving crude oil increased seven-fold between 2005 and 2013, from $1.5 million to almost $11 million.

In Canada last year, 47 people were killed and part of a town was destroyed when a runaway crude oil train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Crude trains also derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va., in April, Casselton, N.D., in December and Aliceville, Ala., in November. While Ohio has not had serious railroad incidents involving crude oil, there have been multiple ethanol train derailments with explosions and fires in the state, including a 2012 accident in Columbus and one each in Arcadia and Painesville.

Credit: see special instructions

Credit: see special instructions

A spokeswomen for Norfolk Southern declined to confirm crude shipments through the Dayton and southwest Ohio region. CSX Communications Director Carla Groleau said unit trains do pass through Ohio, but not through the Dayton area.

Both women said safety is a top concern and cited security and competitive reasons for asking state emergency response offices to keep confidential crude oil routing notifications that the federal government mandated under a May emergency order.

“More than 99.998 percent of the hazardous materials shipped across our 22-state network arrive at their final destination without a release caused by an accident, but we are constantly striving toward a goal of zero incidents,” said Susan Terpay, director of public relations for Norfolk Southern Corp., in emailed answers.

“CSX places the highest priority on the safety of the communities in which it operates over its 23-state rail network, including those in Ohio,” Groleau said in emailed answers.

Since the beginning of 2005, CSX has had 111 serious hazardous materials incidents that have killed one person, injured 19 others and caused the evacuation of 4,432 people, the newspaper analysis found. Those incidents totaled more than $65 million in damages, more than any other carrier in the federal data.

Norfolk Southern had 153 serious incidents that killed nine, injured 641, caused evacuation of 7,322 people and cost more than $21 million in total damage, according to the newspaper’s analysis.

RELATED: Toxic chemical risks hidden from public

Ohio: 12,867 incidents

Each day, one million hazardous material packages ship in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Commercial carriers move more than 3 billion tons of hazardous materials each year, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The 5,320 serious hazardous materials incidents since 2005 are a subset of the more than 157,000 hazardous materials incidents reported by carriers to USDOT and analyzed by this newspaper. Serious incidents are defined by the USDOT as hazardous material releases that: cause deaths or major injuries, the evacuation of 25 or more persons, closure of a major roadway, contain certain radioactive materials or severe marine pollutants, alter aircraft operations or contain more than 119 gallons or 882 pounds of a hazardous material.

Ohio had 12,867 total hazardous materials incidents, of which 256 were serious, from Jan. 1, 2005, through June 24, 2014, the analysis found. The state ranked behind only California and Texas.

RELATED: Highways account for vast majority of serious spills

The serious incidents in Ohio caused one death from exposure to hazardous material and six deaths from the truck crashes that led to the release of hazardous material. The incidents caused $38 million in damages and forced the evacuation of 3,728 people.

Ohio 3rd in serious hazardous material spills during transport  
January 2005-June 2014 
StateSerious incidents
North Carolina153
New York150
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Twenty-two serious incidents occurred in seven area counties, resulting in seven injuries, $1.4 million in damages and forcing the evacuation of nine people. The federal reports do not yet include the 5,000 people ordered evacuated June 17 when a semi-truck began leaking anhydrous ammonia on Interstate 75 near Sidney. That incident caused a six-hour shutdown of the highway but no injuries. Trucking company Hausbeck Brothers Inc. was fined $3,000 by the state.

Nationwide, truck traffic was responsible for four out of five of the serious hazardous materials incidents, three quarters of the dollar damages and almost all of the deaths.

But rail incidents were costlier, causing an average of almost $186,000 per incident compared to $105,482 for highways. Rail incidents also caused more injuries.

‘There is no stopping that leak’

Gasoline is the most spilled hazardous material across all modes of transportation, the analysis found, accounting for 658 serious incidents. Gasoline leaks also caused the most deaths and monetary damages — nearly $169 million since 2005. Sixty one people died as a result of the release of gasoline in the incidents, and 66 died from other causes, such as the impact of truck crashes.

The second most common serious incident involved diesel fuel spills, with 329 releases, followed by petroleum crude oil, with 286 serious incidents. The number of chlorine gas incidents trails the others, but Bristol said it is particularly dangerous because it hugs the ground in a release and can impact people in a 14-mile radius around a spill.

“Chlorine is a pretty significant risk for any jurisdiction,” he said. “If you’d have a train derailment and a chlorine car is in the middle of that, there is a high likelihood there would be a release. There is no stopping that leak.”

Nationwide, 14 serious incidents from chlorine gas leaks killed nine people and injured 647. Most of the casualties occurred in one train accident: The 2005 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in Graniteville, S.C. The engineer and eight other people died from chlorine gas inhalation when the train slammed into a parked train and derailed, causing one of three chlorine gas tank cars to be breached.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed a mistake made by train crews during railroad maintenance and also the vulnerability of rail cars carrying the hazardous material.

Few reporting obligations

It is often only when an accident occurs that the general public or emergency responders find out a hazardous material is being transported through the area.

The best local emergency planners can do is hire interns to stand on overpasses and count hazard placards on passing trucks and trains every couple of years, as they do in Montgomery County. Or they can hire a consultant to ask the railroads for a list of material they have shipped in the past, as Butler County did. But emergency planning officials in Preble and Clark counties said with the exception of certain radioactive material they really don’t know what is coming through their communities.

Railroad and trucking companies have no reporting obligation except in the case of certain radioactive materials, such as spent nuclear fuel. Beginning this month, shippers must also report to emergency planners if they are hauling a million gallons or more of crude oil from the Bakken shale formations in North Dakota. No reporting is required if the shipment falls under that threshold or comes from another oil field.

In Ohio and many other states, however, the public cannot get that same information.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, citing security concerns, ruled that Ohio’s public records laws do not require release in advance or after the fact of information related to the North Dakota crude oil shipments.

Consumer advocates and environmentalists see that as a convenient excuse for shippers and carriers who may not want to face protests about the hazardous material they send through communities.

“The issue here is we should not be assuming that our citizens are terrorists,” said Tyson Slocum, of the Washington D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “People have a right to know whether or not there are any hazards in their communities so they can as citizens take action to minimize harm.”

Emergency planning officials say there are far too many hazardous shipments each day to make notification practical in every case, but they they would like to know more about the routing of large quantities of extremely hazardous materials.

“That would help us be much more prepared,” said Lisa D’Allessandris, director of the Clark County Emergency Management Agency.

Groundwater a concern

The danger of an extremely hazardous material spill would be such a serious threat to the region’s groundwater that Michele Simmons, environmental manager for Dayton, believes the federal government should require that the most dangerous rail shipments be rerouted around the city wellfield.

“We are in favor of having more information (about hazards), considering the aquifer is the largest single source of water for the region,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. “We want interstate commerce to happen, but it’s up to the (federal government) to step up and regulate this commerce that is going through, to make sure our community is safe.”

In February, the federal government and railroads reached an agreement to give crude oil the same consideration of routing alternatives now used with a limited number of extremely hazardous shipments, including chlorine gas and high-level radioactive materials. But it has limited impact in Ohio, where just two cities — Cleveland and Columbus — meet the criteria and risk factors that require railroads to attempt to reroute shipments away from densely populated areas.

Norfolk Southern’s Terpay said “diverting all crude and hazardous materials shipments from cities represents a challenge because many cities were built around rail lines…and many customers are located in these population centers.”

The February 2014 rail industry and USDOT agreement included other safety measures for crude oil shipments, including lowering speeds to 40 miles per hour in urban areas on trains with 20 or more crude oil cars, installing better braking systems, deploying more trackside safety technology and increasing track inspections.

Human error and track defects cause more than two-thirds of all train accidents, including those not involving hazardous materials, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The rail industry has spent $550 million since 1980 upgrading rail infrastructure and equipment, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Overall, rail safety has improved. Last year, 1,786 train accidents of all types were reported to the railroad administration, a 45 percent decline since 2005. But as rail takes an increasing share of the crude oil business, spills during transport are likely to keep rising, according to a May report by the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan federal office which studies issues for Congress.

Calls for changes

Crude oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids are shipped in rail cars — dubbed the DOT-111 — that hold 30,000 gallons and meet federal transportation standards originally adopted in 1964. There have been amendments over the years but the federal government did not adopt standards proposed in 2011 by the railroad industry, rail car owners, manufacturers and rail customers.

About 14,000 cars for crude oil and ethanol have been built to that 2011 standard, which includes a thicker shell, extra protective shields at both ends of the car and protection for top fittings. The extra protection wasn’t enough in Lynchburg, where a 2011-standard rail car punctured and caught fire in April’s crude train derailment.

The Association of American Railroads, a trade organization, wants the older cars to be retrofitted or phased out and is advocating additional safety standards on top of the 2011 standards, said Holly Arthur, AAR spokeswoman.

“The industry absolutely believes the sooner the better for those tank car regulations,” Arthur said.

Spokesmen for oil companies and fuel manufacturers said railroads have an obligation to provide safe equipment for transporting hazardous materials in the rail cars the shipper provides.

“The railroads bear a significant part of that responsibility in that we’re not seeing crude oil cause these accidents, right? If a subway train derails you don’t blame the passengers,” said Richard Moskowitz, general counsel for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association. “But at the same time we recognize that there are some things that can be done as the shipper and the owner of tank cars. We have been committed to doing our part to improve the safe transportation of crude by rail.”

The industry will have invested $4.5 billion by the end of the year buying improved flammable material tank cars, Moskowitz said.

By the end of next year, 60 percent of the crude fleet will be the 2011-standard cars, said Brian Straessle, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. But, he acknowledged, old cars are not being retired as the new ones come online.

“The only retirement program they have is when these things explode and they are forced out of service,” said Diane Bailey, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Credit: Bruce Crummy

Credit: Bruce Crummy

Bailey’s group wants the existing fleet of DOT-111 tank cars to be taken out of service for crude oil, along with mandatory lower speeds, rerouting around sensitive areas, fees assessed on shippers and carriers to cover emergency response services and more inspections of the crude oil trains.

Canada already acted. In the wake of the deadly accident in Lac-Megantic it has banned using the oldest DOT-111 cars for crude oil and called for phase out or retrofit of the entire fleet of crude oil cars within three years, according the May Congressional Research Service report.

In a March 2012 safety recommendation, the NTSB, the U.S. transportation investigator, repeated its call for stronger train tank cars for flammable materials, such as crude oil and ethanol. The recommendation cited an Arcadia, Ohio, explosion and fire that occurred when 32 train cars loaded with ethanol derailed.

“During a number of accident investigations over a period of years, the NTSB has noted the DOT-111 tank cars have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents,” wrote NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersmann.

‘We are still an economy that needs oil’

After years of deliberation, the USDOT just sent to the White House proposed rules that would improve tank car standards for flammable material, revise rules for shippers and address the NTSB recommendations, which also call for expanding route planning rules for flammables and adopting comprehensive oil spill response plans.

After the White House signs off, there will be a period of public comment before rules are finalized.

“These are very complex and technical public safety issues that require extensive review,” said Gordon Delcambre, spokesman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “The rulemaking process has to be thorough because it was crucial to get input from a wide variety of stakeholders, including shippers and carriers, state and local officials and concerned citizens.”

U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and a spokeswoman for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., all said more must be done at the federal level to improve the safety in the transport of hazardous materials.

Slocum said the government needs to also add a limit on the number of crude oil cars that can be pulled at once because that could decrease the chance of a derailment. He said Public Citizen is not calling for an end to crude oil shipments.

“We are still an economy that needs oil,” said Slocum. “We just need to make sure it’s moving across the country as safely as possible.”

Consequences of serious hazardous materials spills in the U.S. by mode of transportation

The U.S. Department of Transportation keeps detailed records on every hazardous materials spill that happens during transport. This shows summaries of costs, deaths, injuries and evacuations caused by the 5,320 serious spills in the U.S. from the beginning of 2005 through June 11, 2014. The data shows, 117 deaths have resulted from hazardous material releases, while 229 have resulted from other causes like the impacts of crashes. Also, there can be numerous incidents from one event. For example, one train derailment can result in multiple spills from different rail cars.

Mode of TransportationSerious incidents% of total serious incidentsDamages% of all damagesDeaths from hazardous materialsDeaths from other causesAll deaths% of all deathsInjuries from hazardous materialsPersons evacuated
Highway 4,298 80.8%$453,362,93574.0%10222232493.6%702 54,747
Rail84215.8%$156,394,10425.5%127195.5%787 50,714
Air1402.6%$1,596,1750.3%3030.9%3 755
Water400.8%$899,3600.1%0000.0%32 5,476
Total 5,320  $612,252,574   117 229 346   1,524 111,692

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety

Crude Oil Facts
Domestic crude oil production: 2.72 billion barrels in 2013
DOT-111 flammable liquid tank fleet: 92,000 cars
Crude oil tank car capacity - 30,000 gallons (approximately 715 barrels)
Crude oil shipments - 2008-2014
6,742% increase since 2008
2008 - 9,500 train carloads annually
2012 - 234,000 train carloads
2013 - 434,000 train carloads (approximately 310 million barrels)
2014 - 650,000 train carloads (estimate)
Source: Congressional Research Service & Association of American Railroads

Crude Oil and Ethanol Accidents -

Flammable crude oil and ethanol are both shipped in old-style train tank cars that have often punctured in derailments, leading to explosions, fires, deaths, injuries and environmental damage. Train accidents involving crude oil have increased in recent years as the shale oil boom boosts production. These are some of the accidents that occurred between 2007 and 2014:

April 30, 2014: Lynchburg, VA – Seventeen of 105 tank cars derail on CSX Transportation Inc. train. One tank car is breached and fire ignites, burning 29,417 gallons of crude. Three derailed cars fall into James River; 350 people are evacuated. Damage estimate: $5.3 million.

Dec. 30, 2013: Casselton, ND – A 106-car BNSF Railway petroleum crude oil train strikes a derailed grain train. Locomotives and about 20 crude train cars derail, with 18 tank cars rupturing and spilling 474,936 gallons of crude. Ruptured tank cars ignite. About 1,500 people are evacuated. Damage estimate: $2.3 million.

Nov. 8, 2013: Aliceville, AL – Twenty-six crude oil tank cars on an Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway train derail in rural area. Fire erupts and an undetermined amount of crude leaks into wetlands area. Damage estimate: $5 million.

July 6, 2013: Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada – A runaway freight train hauling 72 tank cars of petroleum crude oil rolls into the city and 63 cars derail. Multiple explosions and fires occur, killing 47 people, extensively damaging the town center and leading to the release of crude oil and evacuation of 2,000 people. Train operator Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. later filed for bankruptcy. Damage estimate $400 million.

Aug. 5, 2012: Plevna, Mont. – Eighteen cars of a BNSF Railway Company train derailed, including 12 cars carrying ethanol gasoline, which spilled 231,418 gallons of hazardous material and caught fire. Damage estimate: $197,200.

July 11, 2012: Columbus, Ohio: Seventeen Norfolk Southern Railway Company rail cars traveling 23 miles per hour derail, including three carrying ethanol gasoline. The tank shells rupture, releasing 53,047 gallons of ethanol. Two people are injured and environmental damage was caused from hazardous material entering the waterway or sewer system. One-hundred people were evacuated. Damage estimate: $1.63 million.

July 6, 2011: Arcadia, Ohio (Hancock County) – 32 Norfolk Southern Railway Company tank cars traveling 47 miles per hour and carrying ethanol derail. Tank shells rupture causing release of 863,555 gallons, fire and explosion. Material enters waterway or sewer system and causes environmental damage. 25 people evacuated. Damage estimate: totaled $187,410 (carrier damage not listed).

April 19, 2010: Melbern, Ohio (Williams County) – Nine Norfolk Southern Railway Company tank cars carrying ethanol gasoline derail and spill 57,618 gallons, causing environmental damage. Damage estimate: $64,500 (carrier and property damage not listed).

June 19, 2009: Cherry Valley, IL – Derailment of 15 CCP Rail Holdings Inc. tank cars causes release of 323,963 gallons of ethanol gasoline, which catches fire. One death and 8 injuries. 2,000 people evacuated for 20 hours. Damage estimate: $2.7 million.

October 10, 2007: Painesville, Ohio (Lake County) – Thirty-one CSX Transportation Inc. train cars derail while traveling 48 miles per hour. The seven derailed cars containing ethanol catch fire, as do other rail cars. 65,200 gallons of hazardous material released, causing environmental damage. National Transportation Board later ruled that the probable cause was a broken rail caused by improper installation of a rail joint bar, as well as railroad’s company failure to weld the rail. Damage estimates: $8.48 million to $13.7 million.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation and Congressional Research Service

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